For more than 100 years, architectural historians have waxed lyrical in the pages of Country Life (April 29, 1905; May 9, 16 and 23, 1936; Feb 13, 20 and 27, 1975; April 21, 2004) on every aspect of historic, Grade I-listed Chicheley Hall, near Olney, Buckinghamshire, which is for sale for only the second time in its history through Savills (020?7499 8644) at a guide price of £9 million.
Chicheley Hall was built by Sir John Chester between 1720 and 1724 on the site of an earlier mansion owned by his Royalist ancestor, Anthony Chester, which was sacked and plundered during the Civil War. Sir John inherited the estate in 1698, but it was only in 1719, following a visit to Italy with his fellow squire and architectural enthusiast Burrell Massingberd, that master-builder Francis Smith of Warwick was commissioned to design and build the new hall.
In many ways, Sir John was his own architect, and the final design incorporated drawings sent back from Italy by his protégé William Kent. Smith was a fast, efficient worker, and the main structure was completed by November 1720. A total of 955,550 bricks was used in the construction of the house, wings and garden, of which a staggering 85,000 were used for the garden walls. For the next four years, Sir John himself paid the various master-craftsmen who worked on the interiors. The result was some of the finest woodcarving, joinery and plaster-work to be found in any English country house of that period. The elegant formal gardens were laid out by George London and Henry Wise, of Hampton Court and Melbourne Hall fame.
Chicheley Hall remained in Chester family ownership until 1952. During the Second World War, it was used as a training school by the Special Operations Executive, but, happily, the military had the good sense to line the precious interiors with hardboard for the duration of the war, after which it became a school.
Nevertheless, house and buildings were in poor condition when the 2nd Earl Beatty, son of First World War naval hero Admiral David Beatty, bought the hall in 1952 and embarked on a major restoration programme. Interior designer Felix Harbord, perhaps best known for his work at Luttrellstown Castle near Dublin, set out to recreate classic 18th-century interiors, using mainly light colours to accentuate the beauty of the mouldings and panelling. Very sensibly, the earl also added a bathroom to almost every bedroom. But for all its grandeur, Chicheley is essentially a house for living in, although the panelled, double-height Great Hall, with its ceiling showing Herse and Her Sisters Sacrificing to Flora painted by William Kent, is guaranteed to stop any visitor in his tracks.
Each of the main ground-floor rooms is delightful in its own way from the Blue Sitting Room with its walnut and fruitwood carvings, to the oak-panelled Drawing Room, the distinctly masculine Lord Beatty’s Study (formerly the dining room), and the library with its impressive alabaster chimneypiece. Behind the present dining room is a large modern kitchen and a charming small breakfast room which gives directly on to the formal north garden. In perfect Georgian symmetry, the first-floor master suite and Lord Beatty’s Bedroom Suite, mirror the layout of the floor below; there is also a nursery suite with three bedrooms and a bathroom.
The back staircase leads to the second floor, where you might expect to find servants’ rooms or attics, yet here is the intriguing Oak Bedroom Suite, formerly Sir John Chester’s Library, where every panel opens to reveal a shelved book cup-board. Also on this floor are a further four bedroom suites, a staff flat and Lady Beatty’s maid’s quarters. And if that were not enough, the north and south wings have each been converted to three flats.
Chicheley Hall stands in 75 acres of gardens, woodland, paddocks and parkland, overlooking the 14th-century village church and the village itself, which has grown up surprisingly gracefully over the years. It has everything a family could wish for, including stabling, a swimming pool, a tennis court, and a cricket pitch, where Lady Nutting (formerly Countess Beatty), the chairman of the Georgian Group, hosts cricket matches with players dressed in 18th-century costume.
The decision to sell his childhood home has been a difficult one for Nicholas Beatty, the 3rd Earl, but Lord Beatty hopes that it will be bought by a family who will appreciate its unique beauty as much as he and his family have done. Most of the contents of the house will go to family members, although Lord Beatty would consider loaning, or even selling, some of the furniture should ‘the right person’ come along. I really envy that person.